By Lynette Norris
Greene Publishing, Inc.
A record-breaking 131 people turned out for the September 14 meeting of the 55 Plus Club, their first gathering after a three-month break for the summer.
It was the special guest speaker who drew so many, according to Sonny Rollings, who chairs the Board of Trustees of the United Methodist Cooperative Ministries, sponsor of the 55 Plus Club.
“Having the Sheriff (Ben Stewart) is a big draw. When he said he’d come back to speak again, we knew we’d have a big crowd,” said Rollings, as an extra table was being set up to handle the overflow.
Madison County Sheriff Stewart and his four-man drug interdiction team of Lt. David Harper, Sgt. Doug Haskell, Cpl. Michael Maurice and Sgt. Bill Hart were on hand to give the gathered crowd an overview of what the MCSO’s drug interdiction efforts had accomplished during its first three years in Madison County, and to give a demonstration of one of their K-9 Units in action.
Speaking first, Stewart said that drug interdiction was a key component of his election, as is his belief that nearly every crime in Madison County is somehow drug-related at its root. But when he began his term as Sheriff, the drug interdiction team consisted of one man, “and that just wasn’t going to work.”
On his first day, he hired Haskell, and in short order had put together the four-man team that now covers the entire county. The four men are also deputized as U.S. Marshals, meaning they can travel outside the Madison jurisdiction if need be while conducting an investigation. They are deputized and trained as U.S. Customs Agents, giving them more federal authority when needed as well as access to federal databases. The team has been asked to train interdiction agents in other jurisdictions.
The first year Stewart was in office, his budget was cut by about $120,000. The second year, the budget was again cut by another $350,000. His office has had no capital outlay for equipment in its budget for three years, but with the drug cash the interdiction team has seized, they have been able to purchase about 20 fully-equipped patrol vehicles (including a boat that can be used in both patrol and search-and-rescue operations) 15 new tasers, two additional drug-detecting canines, video surveillance equipment and computer systems.
“Drug dealers are paying us to do our job in catching them,” said Haskell.
Rather than handling any of the drug money directly, the Madison team always turns the money over to the federal agents, who then return a percentage of the money to the county through official channels.
The MCSO has also been able to contribute a portion of the drug money toward drug rehabilitation (for Madison residents only) and to charitable efforts like the Boys and Girls Ranches.
Haskell also presented some never-before-seen video from two “indoor grow operations” found in Madison County, one in a stripped-out double-wide trailer, and the other in a semi trailer. Both operations involved hundreds of nearly mature plants, and both were stealing power from the utility company at the rate of $28,000-$30,000 a year, a cost that is eventually passed on to other consumers.
When the Sheriff himself appeared briefly in one of the scenes, Haskell said, “I have no idea who that guy is,” to a round of laughter. “I think he was one of the suspects.”
The final part of the presentation, and the most eagerly awaited, was outside. People got a close-up look at the boat and some of the vehicles and the equipment the sheriff’s office now uses and a chance to see a demonstration of one of the K-9 Units in action. Arko, a shepherd/Malinois mix, was led once around an SUV containing a hidden stash of drugs, and quickly located the hiding place behind the right front headlight, to the delight of the crowd.
The 55 Plus Club meets at noon on the second Wednesday of the month at the United Methodist Cooperative Ministries building, on the corner of Colin Kelly Highway and Dill road, about five miles north of town. Lunch is provided by whichever church is hosting that particular month, and the there is always a presentation on a topic of interest to seniors.
There are no fees or dues; anyone 55 and older is welcome to attend. Their next regular meeting is October 12 at noon.
For more information, contact Deborah Brown at UMCM, 929-4938.